My apologies for the long absence! The last few months have been a tiring time for me, and the financial crisis hasn’t helped matters. However – as one of my sensei’s tea scrolls says, Nishi nishi kore koujitsu: every day is a good day (which I think is an exhortation to practice equanimity). We may prefer nice experiences over not-so-nice ones, but when it comes right down to it, life is precious and we are lucky to be breathing!

And it’s been a great Year of the Ox* so far. I was lucky to celebrate not one but two Hatsugama-s this month … one overseen by my own sensei, and one hosted by an affiliated Urasenke center in a nearby city. There’s nothing like enjoying two “First Kettles” of the year!

There’s always a very festive feeling at Hatsugama; the participants wear brighter, flashier kimono than usual (well, at least the women do), and there’s a lot of smiling and laughter, plus a sense of excitement. The toriawase or selection of tea utensils tends to focus around the zodiacal animal of the year, or traditional New Year/long-life motifs such as cranes and willow branches – or both. Now, oxen (or cows) aren’t the most poetic-looking creatures, but I’ve noticed that a lot of this year’s items feature the akabeko, a stylized folk toy that depicts a red calf. It’s cute as a button, and also rather mysterious (although a bit less so if you click through to the Wikipedia article to read about its origins). It also holds a rather special place in the Japanese heart.

Akebeko or red calf. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Now that so much is uncertain, in terms of jobs/investments/money and many other things besides, this seems to be a good time to make a New Year’s resolution or two about tea practice. One of mine is: I vow to be content with what I have. It’s so easy to be beguiled by tea utensils (I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard), but right now I am determined to practice contentment, and to really appreciate and enjoy – and share with others! – what I’ve already got. As Rikyu said: “Having one kettle you can make tea; it is foolish to possess many utensils.”

I also want to focus on what is really the heart of Tea, namely (among other things) the expression of genuine generosity on the part of the host, the expression of genuine gratitude on the part of the guest, and the meeting of the two in serene mindfulness. In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether the teabowl is a priceless heirloom or a piece of Tupperware. Rikyu: “Tea should not be an exhibition of what the tea man owns. Instead the sincerity of his heart should be expressed.”

And finally, I vow to put more effort into cultivating mindfulness. This means bringing my full attention to each moment, and – when my monkey-mind drifts away and I get caught in distraction – to return to the task at hand without self-recrimination, trying to see it as if for the first time. (As I learned in my first meditation retreat, when keeping my attention on my breathing for more than five seconds seemed purely impossible, each breath offers the opportunity to reawaken.) Rikyu: “When using your right hand, your attention should also be on the left hand.”

P.S. Nearly forgot. I will drink up all my matcha while it’s still good and fresh! 🙂

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*Did you know that while it’s possible to wish someone Happy New Year in Japanese (the usual phrase being Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu), there’s actually no way to say “Happy Year of the Ox [or zodiacal animal of choice]”? The best I could manage was Akemooshite omoodetou gozaimoosu. (Oh, well. At least my Japanese-pun-loving friends enjoyed it.)

Three of the icons available from Hybridworks

Want a gorgeous Japanese theme for your desktop?

Hybridworks is offering a free theme called Yoritsuki. It includes two wallpapers and 35 desktop icons – several of which are tea-related. The theme is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. (Yoritsuki, the author tells us, “is the name of a fictional Japanese-style inn.”)

And even if you’re not into tea or things Japanese, I recommend taking a peek because this creation is stunningly gorgeous.

Go to the Hybridworks homepage and select Yoritsuki from the navigation bar at upper right. When the Flash animation finishes loading, click Enter to view the wallpaper. Then click Change the time to switch the wallpaper from daytime to night.

You will now want to say “Wow” in Japanese. The word is Sugoi!

From this view, you can download a Zip file containing the entire theme.

To skip straight to a page describing what you’ll be downloading, go here. But frankly, it’s more fun to discover the theme via the above animation.

Continuing the previous posting…

Haikening (examining) the chawan

5 – Is the interior sloping inwards towards the bottom?

Avoid a chawan whose interior walls meet the bottom at a precise 90-degree angle. You don’t want there to be any corners of the chawan which cannot be reached by the whisk, otherwise the tea will contain undissolved clots of matcha. That’s not much fun for the person drinking it! Even a chawan that shows little evidence of curves on the outside will have an interior that slopes towards the bottom, if it is made with its true function in mind.

The best way to judge a chawan’s appropriateness for matcha preparation, of course, is to whisk some matcha in it. Obviously, you can’t do that when looking online! However, if you’re considering a bowl in person (particularly if it’s western-made), you have a little more leeway.

One member of the Yahoo group wakeiseijaku describes her habit of carrying a whisk (chasen) in her purse – I assume it’s stored inside a whisk case! – and evaluating any candidate bowls by “air-whisking” with it. This is preferable to handing over a wodge of money, getting the bowl home, and discovering that the diameter is just a little too narrow to manipulate the whisk, or the proportions just a little too confined…

Questions 4 and 5 belong to a larger, more general, and arguably vaguer consideration:

6 – Is the chawan well proportioned?

Traditional Japanese potters have settled on a range of chawan shapes for a reason: they work well. A well-shaped chawan is a pleasure to prepare tea in and to drink tea from. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy a bowl of an unusual shape, but you are always safe in selecting one of the traditional styles (e.g. the V-shaped Ido style, which was modelled on the Korean rice bowl of Rikyu’s time).

7 – Is the bowl a reasonable weight?

Bowls in Chadou shouldn’t be too heavy. I can’t even give you an ideal weight here – it’s something you “know” when handling a bowl. So this is a bit of a question mark. In general, Raku ware is lighter in weight than other pottery such as Kyoyaki, Bizen, Shigaraki, Hagi, Mino, and so forth. If the bowl strikes you as leaden when you weigh it in your hand, it’s too heavy.

Having said the above… many if not most of these concerns may not be relevant to you if you are a non-practitioner of tea ceremony.

And having given a sort of chapter-and-verse response, I’d like to add this:

I really feel that one of the best things we can do is to take chances with pottery, and to learn what works (or doesn’t) by working with it. By doing this, you’ll know experientially what to look for and what to avoid. Looked at this way, there are no “mistakes”, just learning opportunities.

If a bowl’s price is not high, and you really love the look of it, why not buy it and see whether it meets your needs? If you find you don’t care for it as a matcha bowl, you can always use it for other purposes (to hold sweets, nuts, etc.) – or simply enjoy displaying it.

Also, I’m a big believer in buying pottery that speaks to your spirit. If a piece strongly appeals to you, and you would feel badly if you let the opportunity pass, I think you should yield to passion and buy it.

In which case I’m saying yes, yes, yes!

References:
Jaanus webpage on chawan, with cross-section of the chawan showing its parts and their Japanese names

Some great reference articles on e-yakimono.net:
A Guide to Styles
Keshiki – Ceramic Landscapes
Clays
Glazes
Techniques
Kodai – What’s the Fuss about the Foot
The Box – Don’t Throw It Away
Caring for Your Pottery
Tips on Displaying Your Pottery
Thoughts of a chawan collector

I was asked to evaluate a chawan (Japanese teabowl for matcha) by a friend on the TeaChat forum recently. In my reply, I explained why I personally would be reluctant to buy it. My friend asked if I would be willing to share my comments with others. I didn’t want to single out a particular potter’s chawan as a “bad example” (plus, I’m hardly infallible in these matters). Instead, I’ve rewritten my comments as this generic checklist, which may be handy for anyone who is thinking about purchasing a chawan.

A chawan ... but is it what you want?

If there are any senior Chadou practitioners out there who would like to correct or expand on any of these points, I welcome your feedback.

1 – Is the surface of the bowl (especially the interior) smooth or rough?

Most people who want teabowls for matcha – and all practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony (a.k.a. Chadou, the Way of Tea) – should give preference to bowls whose interior surfaces are smooth. Some bowls can be very rough in texture; for example, Shigaraki wares are frequently somewhat pebbly. If there are bumps on the interior, they can cause problems when whisking the matcha – especially if they are convex (“outies”) and not concave (“innies”).

I have a friend who has never used the visually stunning Shigaraki bowl that she purchased for a huge sum; once she got it home, she was chagrined to realize that the gritty texture on the interior would cut a bamboo whisk to shreds. However, if the surface of the chawan you’re considering has pits rather than bumps, and they’re not too deep, it may not be too much of an issue for you.

2 – Is the edge of the bowl smooth?

Similarly, the edge of the bowl should be smooth. In Chadou, a rough or irregular edge be an issue for two reasons.

First, you as host must be able to wipe the edge of the bowl smoothly with the chakin (small linen cloth) as part of the tea ceremony; with a rough edge, this can be next to impossible.

Secondly, you need to present the guest with a comfortable drinking surface, and it’s not generally pleasant to drink from a cup whose rim is jagged or coarse. If the chawan under consideration has any “jags” in the rim, or any other impediments to smoothness (pits, carbuncles, grooves), again I would have questions about that.

Still, if you’re simply making tea for yourself alone, these points may not be that relevant.

3 – Can the foot be gripped easily?

If you are buying a bowl via the Internet, this is something that you will have to judge from the photographs. Any seller of chawan-s who is familiar with Chadou knows that the foot is very important, and will provide at least one good photograph of the foot ring.

Why does this matter? The tea host needs to be able to pour the rinse water out of the bowl one-handedly, by placing the left thumb on the lip and the other fingers within the ring of the foot. A foot that is too shallow, or awkwardly made in some way, is to be avoided because there is a very real danger of dropping the bowl and damaging it.

Even if you are not interested in Chadou, there are two more considerations. Firstly, the foot should be being level and stable (you don’t want the bowl to rock while you’re whisking!). Secondly, the base of the foot should be smooth, since if it is roughened, it may scratch some surfaces on which it is placed such as lacquered shelves or serving trays. (In some cases, fortunately, it is possible to sand the foot, using sandpaper, and make the rough surface smoother.)

There are various types of foot (koudai in Japanese). Some of these can be seen in an article on e-yakimono.net called Kodai – What’s the Fuss about the Foot. There is one type, known as kabuto (helmet), in which the clay at the centre of the bowl’s base comes to a sharp little point. This point is shallower than the foot ring itself; in fact it’s mainly decorative. (I’ll try to post a photo at some point.) However, Sensei – my teacher – does not care for the kabuto style because, she says, tea practitioners with sensitive fingers may find it a little painful to hold (especially when pouring out the rinse water as host).

So… even the “approved” foot styles are not liked by everyone. It helps to see chawan-s in real life, and to hold them, to really understand what to look for!

4 – Are the dimensions of the bowl appropriate?

Chawan dimensions can vary, so the answer to this question is not always obvious. Typical bowls are between 4.5″ and 5″ in diameter at the rim, while the larger bowls (such as those made from raku) can be a little wider still. The height is typically between 3″ and 4″, but does not often go much beyond that. The reasons for these dimensions is so that that the whisk has enough room to “work” inside the bowl without actually splashing about too much.

In Chadou, the only time you get really wide bowls (over 5″) is in the hottest months of summer, when bowls known as natsujawan (summer bowls) or hirajawan (shallow bowls) make an appearance. With these, the idea is to actually allow the tea to cool a little bit, prior to the guest’s drinking it, by offering more surface area. These bowls are not only wide, but considerably more shallow, with a typical height of 2.5″. They are sometimes slightly V-shaped in appearance, too. It can be challenging to whisk matcha effectively in such a shallow bowl.

There are three other types of bowls that you may sometimes see:

  • Tsutsu-jawan, or “tube [shaped] teabowl”. This is a narrower, taller chawan that is traditionally used only in the coldest month of winter – which is February by Japanese reckoning.
  • The second type is called either ko-jawan (“small teabowl”) or nodate-jawan (“teabowl for outdoors”). This is a smaller bowl that is considered more portable; it may be carried either in a bag with smaller-than-average utensils (including a collapsible teascoop!), or packed away in a special chabako or “tea box”. (I own two nodate-jawan; they are, respectively, 3.75″-4″ in diameter and 2.5″-3″ in height.)
  • Tenmoku-jawan (also transliterated as Temmoku). This is a V-shaped bowl with a very tiny foot. In traditional tea ceremony, this type of chawan is reserved for serving to “nobles”, and it requires a special stand called a dai. Unless you are studying Chadou, it’s unlikely that you will ever need one of these.

In the case of both tsutsu-jawan and nodate-jawan, a smaller-than-average tea whisk is required because a full-sized specimen will simply not fit into the chawan. It’s unlikely that you will come across many of these two chawan types, but it is good to recognize them when you do.

So when you are evaluating a teabowl, try to work out whether it is neutrally shaped (= can be used any time of year), it will hold in the heat (wintertime), or it will allow the tea to cool (summertime).

To be continued…

A Nezumi-Shino chawan made by a Japanese potter (and one that fulfils the traditional criteria):

Nezumi-Shino chawan